Next week, millions of high school sophomores and juniors across the United States will sit down for the Preliminary SAT, also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (or the PSAT, for short). For students, the PSAT is often the first in the long stretch of standardized tests that culminate in college entrance exams. But is it worth it? And how can students get ready between now and the October 14 test date? Here’s a look at some of the most common student and parent questions we’ve heard about the test.
Who should take the PSAT?
While the PSAT isn’t a required college entrance test, we’d recommend that all students planning on pursuing postsecondary education take it during their junior year. PSAT test day is a valuable experience -- students get to see what the standardized-test process is like, without worrying about the high stakes of an SAT or ACT exam. (A low score on the PSAT will not hurt students’ admission chances; a high score can turn into a host of benefits that we’ll outline below.)
For high school juniors, the PSAT provides a great chance to ease into the routine of tests. The test is also open to sophomores -- and recommended for those who are high academic achievers. It’s a rare opportunity for 10th graders to take a low-priced, realistic practice test, and they can (and should!) retake the test as juniors, too.
What’s the benefit to taking the PSAT?
The PSAT isn’t just a practice test. Students’ scores can turn into real money for college, thanks to the exam’s dual role as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. National Merit provides more than $40 million in scholarships each year, and the PSAT is the only way students can enter the competition. It’s a tough field -- last year, around 15,000 of the 1.5 million test-takers were named finalists -- but National Merit Scholarships range from one-time $2,500 awards all the way up to college- or corporate-sponsored full-tuition scholarships.
Once a student takes the PSAT, they don’t have to do anything else to enter the competition -- they’ll be notified if their scores are good enough to make the National Merit cut. But families should take note of two things. One: finalists need to let National Merit know their “first-choice” college, in order to be considered for college-sponsored awards. And, two, only high school juniors will have their scores entered. Except in a few special cases, if a student takes the test as a sophomore, he or she must take it again as a junior for National Merit consideration.
If your student doesn’t qualify as a National Merit finalist, don’t worry: there are other benefits to the PSAT. Some of them are monetary: the College Board has partnered with five national foundations to provide an additional $180 million in scholarships to low-income and underrepresented minority students who do well on the test.
Others help with test preparedness: Khan Academy and College Board have developed a free SAT practice tool, and students can upload their PSAT results in order to get personalized study guides and recommendations. With the SAT undergoing some major changes in 2016, this customized test prep is even more important than usual.
How has the test changed this year?
As the precursor to the SAT, this year’s modifications to the PSAT will provide an early look at how that test will change starting in March. According to this overview from Money Magazine, “The version given in October will focus on evidence-based reading and deciphering words in context, instead of obscure vocabulary words. Math portions will focus on fewer topics, but ones that were deemed the most important, such as ratios, portions, and linear algebra equations.” Students can expect to see similar shifts in focus when they get around to the SAT, making the 2015 PSAT especially valuable.
One other major change is more practical: instead of offering a Saturday test option, the College Board is only offering the PSAT on two Wednesdays this year. The preferred test date is October 14, with October 28 as an alternate date. This change ensures that students who want to take the test won’t run into conflicts with travel or weekend plans.
Where do we sign up?
While SAT registration is individual, PSAT registration is done through your student’s school. By now, they’ve likely gotten information from their guidance or testing office; if not, they’ll need to figure out the logistics within the next few days by talking to a counselor or administrator. (Some states and school districts pay or waive the $15 PSAT fee.) In the meantime, students can check out some online and paper-and-pencil practice questions, so they can be as prepared as possible on Wednesday!